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Can Scientific Social Responsibility emerge as a trailblazing initiative?

SSR aims to bring about a connect between science in labs and needs of society


Will Centre's plan to introduce the novel concept of Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) succeed in bridging the gap between science and society?

Guidelines for SSR, released on National Technology Day on May 11, state that the endeavour is aimed at creating an effective ecosystem for optimum use of existing assets to empower the less endowed, marginalised and exploited sections of society by enhancing their capability, capacity and latent potential.

SSR is the outcome of a suggestion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made at the Indian Science Congress meet of 2017, to bring about a connect between science in the labs and the needs of the society.

Indian scientific research is often said to be very outcome and solution-driven, and less of blue-sky. This was the need of the country when it got independence. The several problems that the country was facing—from poor agriculture, inadequate vaccine and general health outreach, communications and transport—needed scientific solutions.

Even as science found solutions to many of India's developmental problems, new needs, not necessarily related to development, emerge. “There is a need to connect science with society in may ways,'' said W. Selvamurthy, former distinguished scientist at DRDO and president of Amity Science, Technology and Innovation Foundation. He chaired the committee appointed by the ministry of science and technology to formulate the national policy on SSR.

Unlike Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with which comparisons are being made, SSR will not be legally binding on the scientific community. However, if incorporated properly into the system, through a process of incentivising, advantages of doing a SSR project will far outweigh any decision to ignore it.

The policy recommends that every scientist or “knowledge worker'' commits ten days every year for SSR activities. There are around 17 suggestions listed as SSR activities, although knowledge workers are free to come up with other ideas, too. SSR activities could include a rural outreach programmes, and public seminars—holding these in local languages for greater dissemination is desirable.

One of the objectives of the initiative is to deconstruct science for public, and another is to make people understand how money of taxpayers is being used by researchers.

An important feature of SSR is to start a national portal, which will be a people-scientist interface. As per the committee's suggestions, common people can use the portal to convey their specific requirements for research. For instance, it could be something like how to deal with changing weather patterns, or the need for a more ergonomic machinery. The portal will provide the research community with ideas on how to steer their research projects towards meeting these requirements.

While not mandatory, SSR hopes to work on an “auditable voluntarism and incentivised endeavour.'' Selvamurthy explained that research funding agencies can make a separate allocation of budget in sponsored projects to conduct SSR activities. Even accreditation and ranking agencies like National Assessment and Accreditation Council and National Institute Ranking Framework can give weightage to SSR activities, while assessing an institute. On the other hand, organisations like S and T departments, University Grants Commission, All India CTE and higher education departments can include a section on SSR for rating an assessee at the time of the annual appraisal.

The SSR initiative will have four pillars – Beneficiaries, Implementers, Assessors and Supporters (BIAS), says the policy. While the beneficiaries are the people of India (or specific sections of the population as per the project), the implementers are the knowledge workers, mainly in the public sector, but not restricted to it. The assessors are individuals or agencies, while the supporters of SSR projects would be the government, Non-resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin, alumni and philanthropic organisations. SSR support could also be synchronised with the CSR activities of the private sector.

The policy has just been released; it will now have to be incorporated into the system through various departments. However, as beautiful as it sounds, it could easily become an eyewash through lackadaisical implementation. It is easy enough to allocate funds for a seminar and even conduct one, without any kind of quality check-up on who the audience is comprised of—were they simply staff and their relatives, called in to fill the hall, or was the outreach effective?

There might be initial challenges in implementation, said Selvamurthy, after which the teething problems should iron out. However, the success of the initiative will depend on sincerity of each of the four pillars of BIAS.

India might emerge as the global leader in SSR, or it could well be another lofty idea that gets reduced to tokenism. 

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